8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think
If you want to motivate people, you don't rely on logic and reasoning. No, what people need is a symbol. A slogan, a flag, the face of a hero to stick on a T-shirt.
So what do you do if the real world doesn't provide you with something people can rally around? You just make that shit up.
Despite anarchists' general failure to unite long enough to make any meaningful progress against their ideological enemies (democracy, capitalism, communism and Internet forum moderationism), they do have a few running themes and symbols in common. One of the most prominent symbols is the 17th century English revolutionary, Guy Fawkes, whose famed exploit was his attempt to blow up Parliament in order to destabilize the British government.
The comparison is probably most recognizable to popular culture as the basis of the graphic novel/box office catastrophe V For Vendetta, in which a dude dresses up like Fawkes and brings down an evil dystopian theocracy. In recent years, through some bizarre online game of Chinese whispers, Fawkes has also come to somehow represent Internet teenagers' struggle against Scientology.
Because hey, why not?
While anarchists may be right that Fawkes was the only person ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions, they've forgotten what those intentions were. Fawkes wasn't trying to destroy an evil theocracy, he was trying to install one.
Fawkes' face of freedom.
Fawkes was a fighter for Spain and the Catholic Church. His goal was to end the slightly more egalitarian Protestant revolution in England by restoring Catholic domination. If the Gunpowder Plot had actually succeeded, Britain would probably look less like an anarchist commune and more like the fascist police state Alan Moore warned us about.
The Inverted Cross
Satanists, heavy metal bands.
Modern Satanism walks the narrow line between bona fide religion and juvenile attention-seeking farce; like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but with a lot more chains, hair dye and self-mutilation. Generally intended as a giant middle-finger to Christianity, Satanists deliberately adorn themselves with symbols that they think will inspire random people to try to give them a stern talking to.
One of the most popular Satanist symbols is the upside down cross, the reasoning behind which seems obvious enough. With the possible exception of that pentagram thing with the goat's head inside it, the inverted cross is the most immediately recognizable symbol of defiance against Christianity. It's certainly the easiest to tattoo onto your own face.
That's pretty hardcore. But there's only one man on Earth who is death metal enough to have an inverted cross carved into his own throne.
Whoa, wait a second...
If those Satanists had paid attention in Sunday school, they would probably realize that the inverted cross is actually the personal trademark of Saint Peter, the first Pope, and one of the most revered figures in Catholic lore. When Peter was martyred by crucifixion he was said to have requested to be crucified upside down because he didn't feel worthy of dying the same way as Jesus. As a result, many dyed-in-the-wool Catholics actually consider the inverted cross to be a more acceptable thing to attach to your tacky jewelry than a regular right-way-up one.
"I'm more metal than you, Satanists!" - last words of St. Peter [apocryphal].
By wearing an upside-down cross, Satanists are unwittingly showing humility and unworthiness before Christ. That makes about as much sense as a neo-Nazi sticking it to the Jews by swearing off pork for life. Take that!
Leftists and socialists.
Go to any college campus and you'll find plenty of Che Guevara T-shirts amongst the student body, especially in the social sciences department. Ask a cultural studies major with a minor in White Guilt about Che and you'll hear how he was an anti-imperialist hero. Ask them about Che's time in Congo and you'll probably get a blank stare.
While the Motorcycle Diaries and other pop culture representations have covered Guevara's early life and the Cuban revolution, it wasn't until 2001 that Cuba finally released for publication The African Dream, Che Guevara's diary of his failed attempt to export the Cuban style revolution outside of Latin America. Che's Congo adventure, which he himself called an "unmitigated disaster," was the tragic result of his attempt to force Cuba onto places that aren't Cuba.
Che sauntered into Africa after the assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. Using the political tragedy as a rallying point, he hoped to launch a people's revolution. By "people," we mean "Che Guevara's people," because although the local rebel leaders considered him a white guy and didn't take well to him barking orders, Che insisted on leading the project with a bunch of his own Cuban mercenaries. His lack of faith in the Congolese people being able to learn how to operate guns makes scholars think he just "sounds pretty much like an old-fashioned racist."
But he looks so open-minded on those T-shirts!
Libertarians, Glenn Beck.
Glenn Beck has recently found a soul mate in Thomas Paine, the Founding Father known for his Revolutionary War tract Common Sense. So much so that he's gone so far as to rewrite Common Sense for the modern era, essentially stuffing words hand over fist into the mouth of a centuries-dead political philosopher for the soul-shriveling disgust Beck knows Paine would feel about Barack Obama.
Libertarians and tea partiers are so enamored by their new ideological BFF that they've taken to dressing up like him on YouTube and spouting off about the evils of taxation, weak foreign policy and too many brown people.
But Beck and his minions could probably benefit from actually reading some Thomas Paine. The guy whose 17th century ghost waxes emotional about 9/11 and congressional pay raises on the Internet is also responsible for these ideas:
"Pay as a remission of taxes to every poor family, out of the surplus taxes, and in room of poor-rates, four pounds a year for every child under fourteen years of age." Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man.
Huh, that sounds like the child tax credit created under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, signed by. . .
"It is painful to see old age working itself to death, in what are called civilised countries, for daily bread... pay to every such person of the age of fifty years ... the sum of six pounds per annum out of the surplus taxes, and ten pounds per annum during life after the age of sixty... This support, as already remarked, is not of the nature of a charity but of a right." Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man.
An entitlement paying old people to support them for not working? That sounds like Social Security, passed by...
"There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it." Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice.
It almost sounds like he's about to say we should all share in the wealth or somethi-
"Create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property." Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice.
Holy shit! That sounds a lot like...
Texans, underdogs everywhere.
The Alamo was the site of the last stand of several influential American frontiersmen like David Crockett and Jim Bowie, against an overwhelming force of Mexican Troops. Though a loss for Texas, it inspired the revolution that finally led to their glorious independence.
As the Alamo's website puts it, "People worldwide continue to remember the Alamo as a heroic struggle against impossible odds - a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom." And what a freedom it was! Except for the 5,000 or so slaves who could now legally be declared personal property.
People who say "Remember the Alamo" conveniently neglect to remember that a considerable factor in the Texas Revolution was that dastardly Mexico decided to outlaw slavery, and that didn't wash well with the American slave-owning population, who needed them black folk to pick their cotton while they laid back on the porch sipping margaritas from coconut halves.
Hell, if you want an inspirational symbol for standing up for freedom against overwhelming odds, how about John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry? John Brown was a radical militant abolitionist who launched a real last stand for liberty in 1859. Taking along 20 other men, including freed slaves, he raided the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. By seizing the nation's supply of guns and ammunition, he hoped to initiate a slave revolt and uprising. As seen here:
Despite evidently being 12-feet tall and made of bronze, Brown's mission failed and he was later executed for treason, becoming a symbol and martyr for the struggle against slavery.
While we're on Texas...
The Slogan "Don't Mess With Texas"
Texans anywhere outside of Texas.
We've all been there: One night you're sitting at the bar getting trashed and trying to make eyes with a hot blonde at the pool table when you're interrupted by a guy who, despite the fact that this is New Jersey, is dressed in boots with spurs, leather chaps and a cowboy hat.
He saddles up to the bar, orders some obscure Texas beer he knows they don't have, and settles for a Bud Light. You try to ignore him, but he insists on striking up a one-way conservation about his life in Texas and how great the state is. By now that hot blonde has already left the bar, while the unaware Texan tells a story about the Texas Rangers and ends the story saying, "That's why we say 'Don't Mess with Texas'!"
While he thinks he sounds badass spitting out that tired line, the fact of the matter is he might as well be saying, "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute."
The phrase Don't Mess With Texas is trademarked by the Texas Department of Transportation as part of their anti-littering campaign started in 1986. If anything, that proves that the only people intimidated by that phrase are Texans, thanks to the Department of Transportation's first strike penalty of sending a litterbag to the offenders.
And, while Texans hope the rest of the world doesn't know about the origins of the phrase, there are a few who remember the last time someone actually messed with Texas, which was the Union in the Civil War. Texas was on the losing side and fell without having many significant battles or any Union troops in Texas at the time of surrender.
The Slogan "40 Acres and a Mule"
Activists for Reparations.
You've surely run into this phrase somewhere, depending on what type of activists you hang around and what rap songs you listen to. For instance 40 Acres & A Mule is the name of Spike Lee's production company and record label, and the phrase turns up in songs by Kanye West, Nelly and countless others.
It's a well-worn symbol of America's struggle with racism--the broken promise by the U.S. government to issue freed African slaves each 40 acres of land and a mule after the Civil War. The idea is that 150 years after the end of slavery, African Americans are still waiting for that goddamn mule.
What many don't realize is that, rather than some unfulfilled land/mule redistribution program to make up for that whole slavery thing, "40 Acres and a Mule" was really just a temporary solution by a single military general who wanted some way to get all these freeloading black people off his back.
While General William Tecumseh Sherman's war tactic of simply marching across the continent and destroying everything he saw was pretty effective in shutting down the South's ability to supply itself, it also left a lot of freed slaves standing around smoldering ruins and wondering how they were going to eat.
As a result, many slaves had no choice but to follow the army. The logistics of supplying and protecting a large number of freed slaves was slowing Sherman down and cramping his style, so he hatched a plan to provide them all with 40 acres worth of whatever land wasn't apocalyptically devastated by his passage. This also doubled as an ample opportunity to get rid of his excess mules. Unfortunately, this was just a wartime measure--after all is said and done, taking people's property and handing it to other people is still unconstitutional.
The closest thing to an official free land program that freed slaves were really offered was the Homestead Act, which gave away 160 acres of federal land to anyone willing to improve it. (The number of mules was never officially specified.) Of course, they had to steal this land from the Native Americans first.
Chief Crazy Horse
Misunderstood By:Clueless white people.
To their credit, white Americans really want to make reparations to the Native American people for that whole attempted genocide thing. One of the most potent symbols of our bourgeoning friendship with the First Americans is that of Sioux chief Crazy Horse, the Native Americans' greatest badass. So progressive is this message that a project is underway in South Dakota to carve an entire mountain into his likeness, so ridiculously huge that it's less than halfway finished after 60 years of work.
Erosion works faster.
While their hearts are in the right place, the irony is that the statue, conceived by Polish American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, was intended as a response to controversy surrounding his other great sculpting project: Mount Rushmore. It kind of misses the point about why defacing mountains in the middle of sacred Native American territory is a bad idea.
Carving shit up isn't solution to all of life's problems.
Unlike us Euro-Americans, who think out national heritage sites like Gettysburg can be made better by putting a Wal-Mart next to them, Native Americans are pretty satisfied leaving holy-enough alone. As Native American actor and activist Russell Means said in an interview: "Imagine going to the holy land in Israel, whether you're a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, and start carving up the mountain of Zion. It's an insult to our entire being."
But that wouldn't have stopped Ziolkowski.
The real kicker is that Crazy Horse refused to be photographed in his life, and was so adamant about it that no images of him are believed to exist. So, carving a 563-foot tall sculpture of him that dominates the Great Plains actually kind of serves as the most elaborate "fuck you" ever conceived by mankind.
You can read more from Philip at PhilipRodneyMoon.com
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For more symbolism that didn't quite work out, check out The 17 Most Unintentionally Hilarious Propaganda Posters. Or find out about some insane experiments people believe are art, in 5 Works of Legitimate Mad Science Passed Off as Art.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 06.30.10) to see Bucholz's collection of Che paraphernalia.